Jay Gilligan's First Law

A body at rest becomes art in motion

"I never intended it to be a career," Gilligan says. "Mostly because I enjoy it too much. I didn't want to turn it into a job." But after graduating from high school in 1995, Gilligan moved to Maine, where he worked and lived with two other jugglers. Together they made up Blink, a short-lived performance trio that fizzled in 1997. Gilligan returned to Ohio, where he enrolled at Bowling Green State University to study dance, a discipline that had captivated him since age 18, when he first saw a modern dance performance. "I was intrigued. I asked myself, 'Why do I juggle? Why do I like juggling so much?'" he recalls. "Juggling is not about tricks. It's about movement, it's pretty. Like dance. When I discovered that, it transformed me."

Yet after only a year and half in school he got a call from a world-renowned juggling group, the Gandini Juggling Project, asking him to move to London to perform with the troupe. He jumped at the opportunity; in the interim he had realized that studying dance wouldn't make him a better juggler--juggling would.

In 2000 the British government commissioned the Gandini troupe to perform a show twice daily at the Millennium Dome. The bureaucracy of the government-run Millennium Dome and the drear London living quickly got to Gilligan, and he and his girlfriend decided to move. "It was either Minneapolis or Oslo," he explains. Minneapolis won out for a couple of reasons: its relative proximity to both Ohio and Winnipeg, Gilligan's girlfriend's home; its active theater and arts community; and the juggling community, including the Minnesota Neverthriving's Jerry Martin, John Rauser, who has performed with Gilligan and produces his current show, and Ochen Kaylan, who performs the music.

David Kern

Gilligan hasn't given up the rest of the world, though. Among his travels abroad last year was a trip to Paris; he was invited, as a member of "the next generation of juggling," to perform with personal heroes and icons of modern juggling like Sergei Ignatov, a preeminent Russian juggler, and Michael Moschen, an American artist who is considered the father of modern juggling. Over the winter he spent three months in Helsinki, teaching at circus school and performing in a traditional circus; his latest show was commissioned by a Finnish festival for experimental juggling and it premiered in January in Helsinki. This year Gilligan plans to go to Sweden and Finland in May, then France and Italy in June, then Finland again in the fall.

It seems that it's easier to be a juggler in Europe than in America. "People [here] see juggling and they think clown or mime," says fellow juggler Rauser. "These art forms aren't okay in America. Theater people, they don't want to identity with jugglers."

Still, there are signs that juggling--and other circus arts--could be undergoing at least a limited metamorphosis in popular culture. What were once considered strange pastimes for oddballs have reached a level of artfulness that is increasingly accepted by mass audiences.

Take the booming popularity of Cirque du Soleil, for instance. Founded in 1984, this modern, Montreal-based circus emphasizes music, drama, artistry, and acrobatics to create stylized performances. Some six million people each year attend its shows around the world. As Cirque du Soleil and other modern troupes popularize the notion of the circus as the European-style mixture of artistry rather than the animal-driven spectacles common in the United States, they also open the door to greater opportunities for jugglers like Gilligan.

Yet the idea of the circus as an artistic venture is still in its infancy in the United States. While there are circus schools in America--and even in the Twin Cities--they aren't considered a real training ground for a true performance art. Edina's Jugheads is an after-school program where kids can learn to juggle. Circus Juventas in St. Paul offers classes in the circus arts, a physical activity that appeals to kids who aren't into teams or competitions. There is also a circus-arts class taught to students in the Bachelor of Fine Arts Actor Training Program that's jointly run by the University of Minnesota and the Guthrie Theater.

That class is well known to Gilligan. He often tags along to get in some practice time (he'll methodically work on his technique for five-six-seven balls, then six-seven-eight rings). He'll also pause from his own work to help any of a dozen students learn a club trick or mount a unicycle, or just watch as they work on the trapeze. But even this class doesn't really aim to produce circus performers; rather, it's a way to help the students further their classical theater training.

"As actors, it's valuable," explains Scott Freeman, the director of the Actor Training Program. "It puts them in an arena where they have to risk." It helps them understand the relationships of their bodies to character, to props onstage. It builds teamwork. And while they seem to love it, Freeman stresses, "the point is not to turn them into circus performers."

Circus schools are both more common and more respected in Europe, Gilligan explains. "In Europe, there are circus schools all over," he says. "If you want to be a professional performer, you must go to circus school."

« Previous Page
Next Page »